Inside Montclair schools’ restorative justice program
by TINA KELLEY
for Montclair Local
In four schools in Montclair, students participated in activities called “restorative justice” for the past school year, as part of the district’s effort to reduce suspensions, build community, and prevent conflicts. Teachers and school officials say the concept, drawn from ancient Native American traditions, has real promise.
But what exactly is restorative justice, how does it work, and what do staff, parents, and students have to say about it? Moving forward, how can the district determine if it’s working?
Restorative justice is a philosophy of building strong communities and relationships as a foundation for working through conflict, to prevent violence and help community members find their own solutions to problems.
The core idea of this philosophy is to give a community a safe environment to talk freely about social or educational problems, so all can feel they’ve been heard and many ideas can be taken into account. It has roots in the criminal justice system, with its methods being used as an alternative to court proceedings.
With the help of a Community Advocacy & Partnership Engagement Grant from the National Education Association, Restorative Justice Montclair was formed as a districtwide response to bullying and suspensions, which disproportionately affected students of color and those in special education classes.
The group is a partnership of the school board; the national, state, and local teachers unions; and the Advancement Project, which trains educators about the philosophy.
In January 2019 Restorative Justice Montclair presented its proposed work to the school board. The proposal read in part: “Human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”
Syreeta Carrington, who helps lead the effort, said Gayl Shepard, the former president of the Montclair Education Association and co-chairperson of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Education, Access, and Opportunity Transition Advisory Committee, was key to spreading the philosophy statewide and in Montclair, and started working with students and parents at the high school in September 2018.
A year later, a pilot effort began in four schools — Montclair High School, Edgemont Elementary School, Glenfield Middle School, and Renaissance Middle School. Each has a district-funded Teacher on Special Assignment working full time guiding students and adults in restorative justice work.
Robin Alvarado, the special assignment teacher at Edgemont Elementary School, runs weekly restorative justice circles with the K-5 students in her school, as well as working with a smaller group once a week, and with people who request it.
The circles grew out of a ritual of Native Americans on the Pacific Northwest coast, in which they pass a “talking stick” or “talking feather” around a circle of people, and each person holding it has the chance to speak uninterrupted. They might tackle questions like “How was your weekend?” or “What do we need so we can do better in this class?”
Instead of a stick or feather, restorative justice circles use a “talking piece,” an object brought in by the teacher or students. The idea is that students should not be burdened with worrying about not having the “right” talking piece, so they can use a teacher’s if they like.
The first person to speak chooses a talking piece, answers the leader’s question, then passes the piece to the next person, who speaks, then the next, all the way around — no switching talking pieces midway, as that could cause hard feelings.
“For young students, using the talking piece teaches impulse control and lets them understand that they not only get to be heard, they get to hear what others are saying,” Alvarado said.
“It ends these isolative feelings kids have, that I’m the only one feeling this way, that I’m an outcast. It gives the students such a voice.”
Small groups of students having problems with their friends have come to her to ask to sit in a circle, rather than letting their issues fester, she said. And a fellow teacher asked Alvarado to conduct a circle in her class, as students were not listening well.
The teacher was concerned that she wasn’t doing something right, but when each student was able to talk in the circle about problems he or she had in class, many spoke about having difficulties with the classmates they were paired up with for projects.
Alvarado asked, in the next round, what makes a good partner. The last child didn’t answer that question, but raised another: “How do I become a better partner?”
“They take ownership of the circle that way,” she said.
Carrington, the special assignment teacher at Glenfield, attended a four-day training session in being a circle keeper in October 2018. She felt that Montclair had weathered many divisive issues over 20 years, and that it might need and benefit from the community-building aspects of restorative justice.
The philosophy helps people to build relationships and to actively want to protect and repair them before and after conflicts, she said. It’s based on the idea that punitive measures often fail, and that it’s important for people who cause harm to understand the impact of their actions and to have a chance to repair relationships.
Her school went through four administrators in one calendar year, Carrington said. “We needed a way back, in September, to calm the raging sea,” she said.
Conflicts are part of life, said Carrington, who offers a University of Wisconsin Beanie Baby as a talking piece, as it was a gift from a student who struggled but eventually got into a great school.
Questions for her circles might include “If you were a forecast today, what would it look like?”
“As a teacher, that’s a valuable tool, to check in with students,” she said, adding that she would later check in privately with kids who said their forecast was completely rainy or stormy. “When people are in relationship, they are less likely to want to cause harm to another person,” she said.
Carrington recalls having a restorative conversation with her eighth-grade students last year about their feelings about heading to high school. Thanks to their experiences in the circles, she said, “there was a sense of safety, security, and community that had been established, and it allowed them the vulnerability to say ‘I’m anxious, I’m scared’ in front of their peers.”
When students wrote reflections about their time in the circle, some confided they found speaking in front of people and making eye contact uncomfortable, and they were afraid of being judged. But no one is forced to talk in the circle; they can simply pass.
Carrington has heard critics of restorative justice think of it only in connection with the criminal justice system, where it has been used extensively. Others ask for proof that it works, though it is hard to watch the philosophy in action, as conversations in the circle are kept confidential so people can speak freely.
“People aren’t widgets, when it comes to the health of the students,” she said. If young people feel that an adult is looking out for them, she said, they could start coming to school earlier, and could avoid activities that could lead to punishment or suspensions.
A group of girls who had been in a large fight last year are able to interact with each other, she said, and their parents are also learning restorative practices with their children and each other, working on issues that escalated to violence in the past. Carrington has also seen a restorative circle work for grown-ups, most recently with the PTA Council, the governing body of the PTAs.
Candice Pastor, the special assignment teacher at Renaissance Middle School, said restorative justice varies building by building. She has focused on creating a community among her school’s staff, as it has been divided into two teams with hours and has had three principals in seven years. She works with pairs of teachers and students to talk through any points of contention.
“A lot of time it is a power struggle,” Pastor said. “In a perfect restorative justice school, a power struggle doesn’t exist. It’s two people having a conversation.” The special assignment teachers agree that the process takes about five years to develop fully.
She helps staff ask their students restorative questions like “Can you tell me what happened there?” instead of “Why did you do that,” or “I see you’re upset” instead of “Why are you so mad?”
Pastor has noticed some resistance among the staff, but she has started off working with teachers who are actively interested, hoping others will see the benefits of the philosophy.
“Being a millennial, the mentality is ‘Give me a good review! Tell your friends!’” she said, laughing. She hopes that as the philosophy works for some staff, more will want to explore it.
After the coronavirus closed the schools, Pastor continued presenting a “morning minute” on Google classroom, with check-in questions for students to answer about how they’re feeling. She also runs a Google classroom for staff, with suggestions of restorative, as opposed to punitive, questions and statements to use with students.
Jonathan C. Mancinelli, the restorative justice teacher for ninth graders, said a consistent group of 10 to 15 students and up to five staff members practice restorative justice during lunch. Since schools closed, he too has set up a Google classroom, with check-in questions like “How was your weekend?” “Would you rather be in the country or the city?” or “Would you rather sleep in a motorcycle helmet or ski boots?”
It may sound silly, but it helps everyone get to know each other better, Mancinelli said. He’s on his computer throughout the school day to respond to students, and he doesn’t grade the answers.
Shortly before the schools closed, the high school staff tried a restorative circle.
“They come in with a ton of questions, and when they leave, they always have a better understanding of restorative justice and relationships,” Mancinelli said.
Some parents are seeing the benefits of the philosophy firsthand. Jessica Schachter had chaperoned her daughter’s Glenfield class and talked to another student about his difficulties in getting along with a staff member. He told her he did the restorative circle with Carrington and talked about his feelings, and it made him feel a lot better.
“It really touched me,” Schachter said.
Many students in town who don’t have enough money and food, which could lead to acting out, benefit from the empathy at the center of restorative justice, she said. “A lot of it has to do with what’s happening in their society, their homes, their families,” she said. It’s important for teachers to recognize the students’ challenges, so they feel understood, not singled out, she added.
Her daughter, Sarah Schachter, 11, spoke about bringing an important possession to a restorative circle – a necklace her stepfather gave her when he married her mother recently. It says, “Today I tell your mom I do, I promise you forever too.”
She said her class knows each other well, which makes getting along easier: “It’s really nice because we don’t necessarily have to be friends to have something in common.”
Another student, Sophie Zuluaga, a sixth-grader at Glenfield, described in a phone interview how restorative circles differed from other class periods.
“When we come into the classroom, everyone sits in a circle, and when people are talking, there’s no way you can turn away from them, all facing each other in a circle,” Sophie said. “It kind of forces you to pay attention to people.”
In circles, she has learned a lot about her classmates.
“You see things you have similar with them, that you have, and you can start friendships. And when we do restorative justice, it kind of teaches you more about where people come from,” she said.
“If Ms. Carrington asks how, like, your life is going, and sometimes your life isn’t going great, sometimes we all share and you kind of feel better, because some other people’s lives aren’t going great either.” That’s a lesson that students often don’t learn until much later.
Sophie added that the circle helps kids become better at public speaking, especially when they share current events or research projects while facing each other.
When Sophie’s mom, Margaret Merrifield, got on the phone, she said her daughter, by nature, is a very shy person, which seemed to contradict her daughter’s confident conversation. Merrifield said the school system had done a “magnificent job” of providing opportunities for empowerment.
She’s pleased that as Sophie entered middle school, needing to change classes every period in a larger, potentially intimidating school, the restorative justice circles made the school more personal.
Merrifield said that at an age when a child can say really mean things in text messages, at a distance from their impact, circles where students look at each other and own what they say are very helpful.
“It’s pretty critical to social development for kids to look at each other and talk, particularly in an age when, unfortunately, now the only way my daughter can interact is over the computer,” she said.
The teachers of restorative justice are seeing clear results of their work, though those are often hard to chart on a graph.
Pastor has seen teachers and students develop closer relationships since the program began. “They’re getting to know teachers in a very real way, and I think it is very powerful for kids,” she said, adding that a whole classroom will discuss times they experienced prejudice, felt super-uncomfortable, or saw injustices. She hopes the philosophy will spread to all of the district’s schools.
Carrington has seen students who had been in conflict with one another sit down to work things through “without resorting to their primal instincts and lashing out at one another.”
Middle school is also known for girl drama, and she has mediated the “shifting landscapes of friendships” over lunch with three girls, providing a safe space for them to be heard. They all seemed to be talking to each other, before the virus hit, she said.
She also noted there had been no repeat suspensions since September at the high school, where suspensions were down 30 percent. Principal Anthony Grosso credited the district’s restorative justice work for the decline: 28 suspensions from September 2019 to February 2020, down from 40 from September 2018 through February 2019.
Sarah Schacter’s mom, Jessica, said she thinks restorative justice can make a difference in the students going forward.
“Some of them will take it to heart, the talking, the not singling people out, not being so angry, not acting out and skipping school,” she said. “If they have someone comforting to go to, like Ms. Carrington, maybe they’ll think it’s safe to go, and not skip. Maybe we can change the future.”